Immigration Reform vs. Puerto Rico’s Political Status

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By: Hector Luis Alamo

In his remarks following a conference on the Puerto Rican economy last week, Luis Fortuño said Congress must address Puerto Rico’s political status before it tackles the immigration dilemma.

“In the case of the Puerto Rican citizens that reside in Puerto Rico,” he said, “you are dealing with American citizens, natural-born American citizens. So if you’re ever going to deal with illegal immigrants, which is, I’m not saying you should never deal with the issue, but shouldn’t you first deal with your own?” It is also “morally wrong” that the people of Puerto Rico are eligible to serve in the U.S. military while prohibited from electing their commander in chief, the former insular governor told PJ Media.

Notwithstanding his pro-statehood leanings, Gov. Fortuño’s comments aren’t as bad as they seem at first glance. Though it appears as if he’s placing the predicament of the islanders above that of the immigrants, surely that isn’t quite what he meant to suggest. Presumably, Mr. Fortuño was referring to the state of America’s moral conscience, arguing that the U.S. government would find it difficult, if not impossible, to treat foreigners with the respect and dignity they deserve if it can’t even show the same level of respect and dignity to its citizens.

The writer James Baldwin once expressed a parallel sentiment when he told a gathering of Londoners that, if America knew next to nothing about him as one of its black citizens, then it certainly understood far less about the people it was bombing in Vietnam at the time. In this sense, that the people of Puerto Rico have been denied basic citizenship rights by the U.S. government is directly related to the mistreatment of immigrants, overwhelmingly Latina/o, by the same government. Puerto Rico has remained a colony of the United States for over a century, and millions of undocumented immigrants reside in the United States today, for exactly the same reason: namely, American white power and its system of subjugation and exploitation.

Mr. Fortuño is wrong, however, for suggesting that the United States should confront one of its moral crises before it tackles the others, as if America were incapable of rectifying itself in multiple arenas simultaneously. The United States can and must accomplish what morally equates to walking and chewing gum at the same time: it must resolve Puerto Rico’s status, which can only be realized through either statehood or independence; and it must repair its broken immigration system that treats decent members of society as criminals and stifles the potential of children.

America makes very large claims for itself, styling itself as a shining city on a hill, a bastion of liberty and democracy, a champion for all humanity; most of its citizens faithfully believe all of this. But for those acquainted with a different side of America – the nearly four million second-class citizens in Puerto Rico and the over 11 million second-class citizens living in this country – what are required more than brilliant words are brilliant deeds. More than promises, these people demand evidence.

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